God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism, by Bruce Ware (Crossway, 2000).
Does God know the future – all of it? Does He know what I will do tomorrow, and whether or not your unsaved relative will come to a saving knowledge of Him next year, and whether serious global warming will take place this century? Until recently, Bible-believing Christians would answer, “Yes!” to all of those questions. Classical Arminians and Calvinists disagree on whether God is the sole cause of our salvation, but have always agreed that God knows who will be saved.
Since the 1980’s, a contrary view has emerged among some theologians, who argue that the Bible teaches that God does not know the future. Rather, His knowledge is limited to the past and present. While He knows our present thoughts and intentions and therefore is able to make the best possible predictions for what will happen in the future, God is sometimes surprised by our decisions; we (and rebellious angels) can and do act contrary not only to His will but also to His expectations. This point of view is known as open theism, for the future is open, unknown, even to God. Its proponents argue that this position exalts both man and God, as we are able to have genuine, dynamic relationships with Him only if we can surprise Him; furthermore, they claim that this position deals with the problem of evil, since evil comes from wrong decisions made by beings whom God does not control.
In a new book, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism, Bruce Ware of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary challenges this position both biblically and pastorally, arguing that open theism ignores or grossly misinterprets texts throughout Scripture, and, in the end, is of no help to the victims of evil.
Ware divides the book into five sections. His introduction establishes the importance of the issue, noting the increasing prominence of open theism, and the major impact this view has on our conception of God and our ideas about how to live the Christian life.
Part I then lays out the arguments made by open theists. True freedom, they maintain, not only requires that God leave human agents free to make certain decisions (the classical Arminian argument), but also requires that He cannot know those decisions ahead of time. For if He knows, humans have no option but to follow that foreknown course of action. Furthermore, several Biblical passages provide support for this view on a straightforward reading of the text. Here are three examples:
So God, according to open theists, values His relationship with free creatures so much that He hands over to them the authority to make decisions. God thus takes risks, since He cannot know what these autonomous creatures will do with this authority. When humans act in unexpected ways, God may regret actions He has taken in the past, recognizing that the good He intended was turned into evil by men. Yet we can still hope in God, for He loves us and is supremely resourceful in responding to these unforeseen circumstances. He will try His best to make good come out of evil.
In Part II, Ware demolishes these arguments. He agrees that a simple, straightforward reading of these texts indicates that God changed His mind, or was surprised. But all biblical interpreters – even open theists – agree that not every text should be interpreted according to a simple, straightforward reading. For example, the simplest interpretation of Genesis 3:9 is that God did not know where Adam was. But in this case the open theists say there is sufficient biblical evidence that God is omniscient in terms of the present, so we should understand that God asked the question for Adam’s benefit. Exactly right, says Ware; and there is certainly sufficient biblical evidence to establish God’s omniscience in terms of future events, causing us to reassess the simplistic interpretations offered by open theists to the texts cited above.
Ware then proceeds to support his position, first by offering alternative interpretations of the texts cited by open theists (he shows that God had to know ahead of time that Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac; that the same chapter in Samuel says that God is not like a man that he should repent and change His mind; and that God’s very communication of His intention to destroy the Israelites was planned by God to bring about Moses’ request for mercy, and God’s “repentance”). Second, Ware offers a masterful and painstaking analysis of texts that prove God’s foreknowledge. He spends almost 20 pages looking at Isaiah 40 to 48, where God time and again makes clear that to be divine requires that He know the future. Along with these general statements are specific prophecies of events almost 200 years in the future, in particular the coming of Cyrus; “what God predicts involves massive numbers of future free choices and actions of God’s moral creatures” (112). God can only bring these predictions to pass if He ensures that all those choices are made in accordance with His plan.
In Part III, the author examines the practical and pastoral implications of the open theist position in three areas: prayer, divine guidance, and response to suffering and evil. This section of the book is especially powerful. For example, the God of the open theists cannot be trusted to offer correct guidance, since He does not know what will happen. The proponents of this view argue that this is positive: we, in relationship with God, work out together with Him what our life will be like. Ware responds to this by asking, is this the way Jesus lived His life? He then examines John 8 to show that Jesus did not dialogue with God about how to plan His future; rather He submitted to the Father, confident in His wisdom and judgment. If Jesus acted this way, how should we act? Ware concludes this section with a paragraph that has bearing on the entire debate:
Freedom in Scripture is a full worldview away from our culture’s conception of freedom. True freedom, according to Jesus, is living life his way. This is not a life of mutually deciding with God what is best; rather, it is a life of listening to God and learning from him what is best. Freedom is not our choosing, in relationship with God, what we together agree upon; rather it is submitting humbly to the absolute and undisputed authority of God over our life in order to discern his will for us. Freedom, in other words, is our bondage to the will and ways of God as the only course of life that is good and right and satisfying. (186)
Furthermore, the open theist has no method of understanding what happened to Job and Joseph. God does not say to Job, “Oh, I’m so sorry for all the trouble you’ve had; this strong angel Satan hurt you and I couldn’t stop him. I’ll try not to let it happen again!” Nor does Joseph say to his brothers, “Yes, you rebelled against God, but He is supremely resourceful and used the occasion of your evil to bring about good.” No. Joseph says, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen 45:7,8, emphasis added).
In the end, says the author, the God of open theism has a conditional glory; He only gets glory if He gets lucky and people do what He wants them to do. There is no guarantee that all will work out according to His plan; on the contrary, given the evidence so far in history, it seems likely that God is losing the battle. So, despite all the claims about open theism, if our good depends upon God’s ultimate victory, that good seems highly suspect at present.
But -- praise God! -- the God of the Bible is not the God of open theism. Our God does know all events, past, present, and future; our God is working together all things for His glory and our good; our God redeems suffering and pain, and promises to wipe every tear from our eyes; our God makes promises and ensures that He will bring them about; our God is truly wise, truly loving, truly powerful; our God is the one who says, “My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.” (Is 46:10).
So praise God for Bruce Ware and this careful response to the challenge of open theism. This point of view is discussed and extolled in Christian magazines, on Christian radio, and by Christian publishers. Given its resonance with modern culture, there is no question that this position will become more and more prominent. All of those involved in church leadership should read this fine book in preparation for challenges ahead – and then delight in the God who “reigns supreme as King over all, knowing the end from the beginning, and regulating the affairs of all creation to accomplish his infallibly wise and perfect will” (230).
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